April 9, 2020
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas
Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14
Psalm 116:12-13, 15-18
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
This Holy Thursday, Catholics around the world are experiencing some sadness, as most of us do not have access to a church. I feel the loss of not being able this week to celebrate the Chrism Mass and to renew my ordination promises along with my brother priests. As a priest and bishop, I am heartsick that I cannot celebrate the institution of the priesthood and the Holy Eucharist in this cathedral in the company of the people of God for whom I have been ordained to serve. Nevertheless, I am offering Mass, and I know that I am doing so in union with the whole body of Christ, the church militant, the church suffering, the church triumphant — indeed, in the presence of the whole company of Heaven. I may be solitary, but at Mass, I am not and will not and cannot be alone.
As Catholics we celebrate this Mass of the Lord’s Supper, mindful of our Jewish brothers and sisters who tomorrow night will celebrate their Passover Seder; we pray for them that God will bless them. The first reading from Exodus speaks of the first Passover. The Israelites are spared the last punishment to be visited upon Egypt. They are first to prepare a meal to be eaten as part of a sacrifice; they are to eat with their shoes on their feet as a people in flight; they are to stay at home. They begin by fleeing and seeking refuge from oppression. They begin their flight as a crowd of refugees, but it is the covenant made between God and Moses on their behalf that makes them a people on pilgrimage to the Promised Land. The Passover forms them not only as a people but as God’s people, the people belonging to Him, prepared for the promised land. The Lord keeps His promise.
The Israelites, by God’s mercy, are led dry-shod through the sea, as we will sing in the Exultet this Saturday night at the Easter Vigil. Israel’s oppressors, by God’s power, are drowned; the Israelites’ freedom is given to them by the Lord. That gift of freedom is the fruit of God’s covenant. It is the covenant by which God makes them a people with an identity and a sense of belonging as well as a noble purpose. They move from slavery and being possessed as property to freedom and belonging to God and to each other. The Lord keeps His promise.
We mark this Mass of the Lord’s Supper tonight confident that God has kept His promise in the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ, who has offered Himself sacrificially as the new and eternal covenant. We are to stay at home. We are each in our homes tonight, praying that both the contagion of sickness and fear will pass over our families and communities unable but not unwilling to gather as an assembly at the celebration of this Eucharist. Our faith should sustain us at this time that simple practices like hand washing and social distancing are authentically small sacrifices done with great love to strengthen us for the time when we can safely gather again to worship God at church.
The Last Supper is the first Passover fulfilled. The Last Supper first prefigures the eternal and lasting Passover, the Lord’s giving of His life freely on the Cross. The Lord, who has power to lay down His life and to pick it up again, does so with unconditional love for us in His Cross and Resurrection. The Last Supper is the first Eucharist which makes us present to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as both priest and victim. The Eucharist is both sacrifice and banquet — each of an eternal character.
Our current circumstances have offered us the time and space to consider that the Eucharist is so much more than simply “receiving Communion.” When we consider the Eucharist only as “going to Communion,” we neglect a full appreciation of the sacrificial character of the Mass — that is the full expression of God’s unconditional love for each and all of us. The current circumstances have also offered us the chance to examine our consciences about taking the gift of the Eucharist for granted, instead of receiving the Eucharist as a gift to enter into the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice of Himself for our salvation and deliverance from sin. The Eucharist is not simply a Communion service, nor simply a Gentile re-creation of a Seder meal.
If the Eucharist makes us the Church, then a lack of a full appreciation of the gift and mystery of the Eucharist will affect how we understand the gift of being the Church. The current circumstances, in which we ask God to deliver us from the power of the contagion of sickness and fear, have also given us the time and space to consider that the church is not simply a place for us to go on Sunday or Saturday night, or whenever our convenience prompts our self-initiative. The Eucharist, as both sacrifice and banquet, binds us together in the communion of love intended by Christ that makes us rightly ordered as the Church, with a hierarchy based in service — the service that is exemplified by Jesus in the washing of feet: the complete washing away of sin from our lives including at the feet or base of our human condition. The Church is not a political organization turned inward on itself with an introspection preoccupied by self-preservation or survival. The church is each and all of us bound together with Christ in loving communion centered on the sacrifice of Christ alone and not upon ourselves or our own will.
We read in the Passion account in Matthew’s Gospel this past Sunday about Peter’s promise to Jesus that he would never deny Jesus even to the point of dying for Christ — a promise that he was unable to keep. Tonight, we read from John’s Gospel of Peter’s initial protestation and declaration that Jesus should never wash his feet. We see in each of these responses on Peter’s part our own weakness and need to unite the imperfect offering of our imperfect lives with the perfect offering of Christ’s perfect life to the Father. This perfect offering of Christ continuously is made present through the offering of the Eucharist celebrated by priests in the person of Christ (in persona Christi). We unite our imperfect offerings to the perfect offering of Christ through our full and active participation in the Eucharist offered by priests, and not simply by our “going to Communion.”
If the priesthood is instituted for the sake of the Eucharist, then a lack of a full appreciation of the Eucharist, with its sacrificial and communal character, will affect how we understand the gift of the priesthood. Jesus’ sacrifice made present through the celebration of the Mass imbues the character of the ordained priesthood both in its degree and essence. Each priest’s life is intended to be sacrificial, the laying down of one’s life for the spread of the Gospel and for the salvation of God’s people. Priests are called to love their parishioners because they have been made to be part of God’s people through the precious Blood of Christ. Priests are called to recognize with gratitude that their own salvation is part and parcel of their own call to give of themselves beyond even the baptismal call to evangelize and to serve. When priests offer the Mass, either with an assembly present or without anyone else physically present, they are to do so to pray for the people and to shepherd them more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s sacrificial love in His death and Resurrection. When priests absolve sinners in the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, they do so not simply as a dispensary of positive thinking for self-affirmation, or as one deputized to expunge a criminal record, but as a shepherd of God’s mercy and forgiveness. When priests anoint the sick and the dying, they do so not simply as a representative of a local community nor as a therapist, they do so in the person of Christ the Good Shepherd and they speak authoritatively in His name that sin and death do not have the final word in human life — but that judgment belongs to Christ alone.
The current circumstances have offered us — both priests and laity — with the opportunity to consider more deeply and with gratitude the full and authentic understanding of the mystery of the ordained priesthood as priests have been called upon to shepherd those most vulnerable to the onslaught of sickness and fear — the contagion of sin. As priests, we consider our own unworthiness for this vocation and ministry and are always aware of our own imperfections and weakness to sin. As the laity, please consider the essential need for the priesthood for the salvation of souls as Christ intended and pray to encourage priestly vocations.
Regardless of where we are this Holy Thursday, regardless of our circumstances, pause today and recall the faithful love of Jesus illustrated at the Last Supper, revealed at Calvary, and made present again at every Mass. Pray for a deliverance from this virus and its effects that we might enjoy again the restoration of public Masses; pray for reparation for ingratitude towards the Eucharist; and pray for us priests — who share the awesome burden of being earthen vessels into which God has chosen to pour His priceless treasure of the mysteries of salvation.